“Mixed Up” (novelette) by Vladimir Savchenko
English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)
Original: Russian (Перепутанный), 1980
Translated by Kevin Reese, 2015
Synopsis: When an alien race beamed their personalities across space to Earth, mankind learned the secret of interstellar travel; not everyone, however, was able to sustain the transfer, as evidence by the death of several so-called psychonauts. When M. A. Kolotilin returns from his beamed journey, his eyes sense sound while his ears register color. Initially perplexed by this mental cross-wiring, he soon begins to accept and adapt to the uniqueness of his state even while his wife leaves him and his fellow scientists urge treatment and experimentation.
Pre-analysis: Let’s shun the cliché “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” in favor of David Hume’s “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them”. I think this appropriately shifts the subject from the person beyond the senses: the mind and that which registers the senses. If you were to change the mind, you’d change the perception of beauty, but not the memory of that beauty—for better or for worse.
Analysis: Kolotilin knew of beauty in the form of sight and sound prior to his psychonaut jaunt—the stars, the forest, the symphony, and his wife. When returning to Earth into his own body, these two senses swapped in indescribable ways. As his mind had only known a world where eyes and ears registered their respective sense, Kolotilin was left bewildered and left reliant on his reliable sense of touch and space.
For want of remembering beauty, he plays music and sees his wife, but both of these instances fail to imprint a new sense of beauty in his mind. His isolation in the laboratory doesn’t inspire this same fledgling sense, so he prescribes himself a walk outside where beauty reigns in his memory and to his new senses, the latter trumping the former. When the scientists urge him to experiment in transliterating his senses so that he can experience the so-called real world again, he adamantly refuses to cooperate so that he can perfectly adjust to his new found sense of beauty… but he also achieves a greater sense of life:
And that which is petty, stupid, empty and low is people and in the world will remain for me incomprehensible noise and visual trash. And good riddance. I hear that which is seen and see that which is heard, but I perceive not sounds nor light, but that which lies beyond them. So am I poorer or richer for it? (385)
If we use our subjective sense of beauty as an analogy, could the same be same for a philosophy, an ideology, a system of governance? I’m no Soviet historian, nor am I savvy with political science, alas:
The Soviet Union in 1980 was seeing a growth on the global scale thanks in part to its military strength, indeed it also was experience an economic growth, from $1 trillion in the 70s to $2 trillion in the 80s. Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary, had been holding the reins of the party and the State for sixteen years. Aside from cold deathly stares of the Americans across the intangible yet noticeable Iron Curtain, things were looking good for the Soviets.
Democracy isn’t for everyone. It’s one form of beauty in the form of governance, but what works for one people in one country doesn’t necessary apply across the board to all peoples and all countries. The American ideological crusade to push democracy around the world is an attempt to replace one subjective beauty with another. Take Thailand, for example: Elected government after elected government have only brought the country to the brink of civil war; since the coup two years ago, however, social stability is finally savored, a fact supported by the recent referendum approved by voters to allow the military junta to elect its own government for the next five years.
To speak for the Soviets, perhaps the hard-line communists truly believed in their form of society and government. Democratic rhetoric (Kolotilin’s scientists) can’t ideologically understand non-democratic systems (Kolotilin’s happiness). The former may see things as they are—beautiful, natural, and perfect—while the latter may also see exactly the same things—just as beautiful, just as natural, just as perfect—yet though completely different senses. Who’s right; who’s wrong? Like my mum says, “As long as you’re happy…”
Review: It’s a bit hard to envision what Kolotilin experiences. The framing of this unique experience on Kolotilin’s part is due to the equally unique method of traveling among the stars. How this method was discovered and who used this method were a two additional unique aspects of the story—so, to sum it up, the story is pretty unique. Regardless, it’s hard to wrap your head around and rather lengthier than need be.